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Friday, November 30, 2012 - Page updated at 02:30 p.m.

‘Radio Unnameable’: Paying tribute to a ’60s counterculture DJ

By John Hartl
Special to The Seattle Times

This rough but charming documentary, which focuses on a Staten Island-based disc jockey, Bob Fass, was completed several months ago. Today, it’s difficult to watch it without thinking of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

As Fass and his friends move his archives to what looks like safe territory, you stifle the urge to tell them what’s coming. Fass’ files, which are clearly irreplaceable, go back to the 1960s, when he was an influential counterculture voice, siding with the anti-war movement and its leaders.

Abbie Hoffman was a frequent visitor/guest. Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan turned up to talk about politics and music. Arlo Guthrie was said to have first played “Alice’s Restaurant” on Fass’ WBAI (which was financed by a millionaire who was bored with most radio).

Public radio had previously been a hit parade of classical music, and there were few NPR-style programs. Fass was good at creating a response to lonely late-night New York City. One fan called Fass his “radio rabbi.”

The movie can’t help echoing the current situation. Newsreel footage from the 1960s shows protesters insisting that soldiers not fight “Wall Street’s War.” Robert Downey Sr. (yes, Sr.) turns up to register his dissatisfaction.

When Fass’ show gets the boot, you’re overwhelmed by the feeling that you’ve seen this tale of corporate greed and arrogant mismanagement before. Still, the filmmakers tell it with gusto.

(Fortunately, the Fass archives were moved to safe ground in Virginia earlier this year. But WBAI, which is on the 10th floor on the East River, was flooded and has no power.)

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com